Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
“What does your tattoo say?” Lorrie Moore asks our young waiter.
Moore has the distinct quality of seeming silent even when she is speaking. Her low, honeyed voice moves in jovial swoops, and when she laughs, she does so deeply, like she means it. We sit tucked away in a corner of Brassiere V, on Madison’s trendy Monroe Street, Moore sipping on beer and coffee like she has a hundred times before for a hundred other journalists and I imagining an invisible web spreading out from her, potential narratives vibrating on the periphery.
“It says ‘I am the rock that grounds me.’ Deep,” he adds, sort of apologetically.
“That’s too deep for a tattoo,” Moore teases. Turning back to me, she says, “There was a girl who used to bartend here with a tattoo I borrowed for a character. It was a city on her neck and I had a character who had all the cities that she didn’t want to go back to as tattoos.” KC, a young but tired indie musician, is tattooed with “Decatur,” “Moline,” and “Swanee” and befriends, at her apathetic boyfriend’s suggestion (and with questionable motives) an aging and maybe-horny man.
The story in which KC appears, “Wings,” was published in Harper’s and is in Moore’s new collection, Bark. “Wings” is both a summation and forgiveness of the gross things we do, like dating schmucky people and schmoozing the nice-but-wealthy old man next door, things meant to help us get ahead but that instead leave us a little behind. “Ignorance ironically arranged for future self-knowledge,” thinks KC, “Life is never perfect.”
Taking in the room, Moore explains that her writing usually starts with characters and predicaments, “people who are up against the world in a particular manner. Feelings you are trying to get at with language.”
Thirty-seven years have passed since Moore’s first published work appeared, a short story about a janitor in an elementary school, which won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest in 1976. She was 19 years old and refers to the experience as a “fluke,” noting that she didn’t get serious about writing until many years later. Originally, she had hoped to win Seventeen’s art contest but says that by time she wrested up the courage to send them anything at all, she was writing stories. “What I remember most is the 500 dollars,” she recalls. “Which seemed a fortune to me, and I was able to buy my textbooks plus a new stereo.” Her next published work would not appear until 10 years later, the barbed and reflexive Self-Help, a book that hooks you with all the tough, but good-natured love readers go back for again and again.
Born in Glens Falls, a small town in upstate New York, Moore attended Saint Lawrence University where she studied English, graduating summa cum laude. Her father was educated as a scientist and worked in insurance, though his true love was music, while her mother was a nurse, a teacher and homemaker, and a “community activist of sorts.” The household was fairly religious; dinners began with grace and there was minimal TV watching, a home replete with all the “general suspicions of the 20th century” Moore said last October in a talk, “Watching Television.” Like many of her generation, her and her brother’s salad days were full of illicit television viewing in the basement TV room and mad dashes back upstairs as their parents pulled into the driveway. Their mother would sometimes press her hand against the TV screen to see if it was warm, the vestiges of “Gilligan’s Island” and “F-Troop” evaporating off the glass.
Moore says her parents weren’t supportive or unsupportive of her writing career. “No parent in their right mind should really encourage a child to become a writer. It has to come completely from the child,” she explains. Besides the relative poverty most writers at some point find themselves in, the writing life also tends to be an isolated one, with observational skills sharpening at a quicker pace than social ones. I ask her whether or not she feels her capacity to observe ever gets in the way of simply interacting with people. “I think with all observers it’s a problem,” she remarks, and refers to one of her favorite writers, Alice Munro. “I can’t remember precisely what she said,” Moore says of Munro’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, “But I think essentially it was ‘I just want to be normal now.’” It’s the old idea that to be a writer is to lead a double life. “You’re not doing quite what other people are doing in the same situation perhaps,” Moore reflects.
Part of what defines Moore’s public persona is the debate over how autobiographical the work is, as well as the fervid enthusiasm of her fans. Set in that comfortably crummy place we call middle class, Middle America, her protagonists are often witty, stubborn, and charmingly self-deprecating, a humor mostly lost on the mollifying Midwesterners that surround them. It’s an embarrassing show of intelligence that leaves them feeling more isolated and misunderstood than before. Moore invokes with eerie familiarity awkward moments that tend not to pan out so well — if at all — in a landscape distinctly red, white, and blue. Her hometowns are dead-on, though they have caught her some flack from a few of her Midwestern neighbors. “She made it clear in many interviews how little she thought of the city and its people,” an anonymous reader writes on Madison’s local The Daily Page. “This disdain also showed up in her fiction.”
Home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the fiercely granola, Madison is somewhat of an anomaly: a university-town hailed for its liberalism and farmers’ markets in a largely conservative state. The summers in Madison are buggy and bird-chirpy, full of Friday night fish fries and beer-drinking Lutherans. The winters are insanely cold, with hoar frost and black ice and gobs of snow. Cars remain salt-encrusted until mid-March, when temperatures rise high enough to wash them without the doors freezing shut. Wisconsin, like the rest of the Midwest, is dull and cozy and more appealing when filtered through fiction or Instagram.
Some locals took umbrage with Moore’s story that appeared in 1997, in The New Yorker. “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” is a tale in which a baby is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes an operation with some procedural errors. Moore has a son of college-age who was also very ill as a baby and Moore, speaking to the Guardian, explains that the story was assumed by some to be attack on the local hospital. “They felt that I was hard on the medical students, and hard on the doctors.”
From the opening paragraph, it is hard to divorce the fiction from its foundation in reality.
The Surgeon says the Baby has a Wilms’ tumor. The Mother, a writer and teacher, asks, “Is that apostrophe ‘s’ or ‘s’ apostrophe?” The doctor says the Baby will have a radical nephrectomy and then chemotherapy. The Mother begins to cry: “Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.” She thinks perhaps she is being punished for her errors as a mother. At home, she leaves a message for the Husband. The Baby has a new habit of waving goodbye to everything, which breaks her heart. She sings him to sleep and says, “If you go, we are going with you.” The Husband comes home and cries. He tells the Mother, “Take notes. We are going to need the money.” He says, “I can’t believe this is happening to our little boy,” and cries again. The Mother tries to bargain for the Baby’s life, imagining the higher power she addresses as the Manager at Marshall Field’s. She argues with her husband over the idea of selling the story: “This is a nightmare of narrative slop.”
Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.”
She ruffles slightly when asked directly how autobiographical the work is, and is careful to describe writing like stagecraft. “I’m never writing about myself. It’s [about] observing a feeling in someone else. Imagining a feeling in a particular character — and that character is a collage from your mind — and then you enter into that character like an actor or actress. You’re not going to be journaling. You’re trying to find, as efficiently as possible, a thing that person would say — or possibly say — and definitely do, that you, the author, are interested in the reader feeling. All of that happens at your desk.”
Moore does not journal at all, but she does keep a notebook. “One should always take notes and try not to be lazy about it,” she says. And to that end, one is reminded of Joan Didion, who failed at keeping a diary, instead finding comfort in the distinction of note taking. “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.” Similarly, Moore’s work is brimming with a brilliant discernment of what may be interesting to express through prose as opposed to what is overly expressive, a literary refining process Didion describes as “just this side of self-effacing.”
“People Like That” is one of Moore’s best-loved short stories, and to say it is simply memoir perhaps diminishes her ability to pull back and allow the reader some breathing room, a little space for Moore’s audience to enter into her characters and share their pain and the evolution of their love.
Moore is no memoirist, but it is not impossible to connect a few dots between her world and that of her characters, especially when sitting in her web. A small sympathy went out to our waiter when he described the quinoa salad as a “mélange.”
“That’s a terrible word to use for food,” Moore teased. The boy blushed and fumbled for a better description. In her novel, A Gate at the Stairs, protagonist Tassie Keltjin marvels at the evolution of menu-language. “I went back to studying the menu — was it not a kind of poetry?” narrates Tassie. “There were astonishing things: crab mousseline with a shellfish cappuccino. There were fennel-cured salmon noisettes with a champagne foam. Not a Chubby Mary in the house. There was bison carpaccio with wilted spring leaves…There were salads of lambs quarters and mint and sorrel with beets and pea shoots and tomatoes that were heirloom, like brooches, and cheeses that had won prizes in shows, like dogs.”
Obvious correlations like tattoos and menus, or the doll hospital near Moore’s hometown and the one that appears in “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” are peppered throughout her prose, making it especially hard for people — fans, relatives, friends, and boyfriends — to not become paranoid. “But that’s what artists do,” Moore says, explaining that if she does borrow something like a tattoo, she asks. “And ultimately, elements of a story collide and create a certain feeling,” she says. “You are trying to give the reader an experience.” And with Moore, it’s an experience that occasionally makes the reader want to bash their head in.
“I remember reading a story of hers about a woman who drops a baby,” says Jad Abumrad, host of the popular radio show Radiolab, “and I was devastated.” The last in her collection of short stories, Birds of America, published in 1998, “Terrific Mother” opens with a young woman, Adrienne, awkward and discomfited by the idea of motherhood. At a backyard party, Adrienne is asked to hold a friend’s baby and in an unfortunate moment of picnic benches and gravity, drops and kills the child. It’s a dazzling and trenchant look at one woman’s struggle to somehow continue a life after a god-awful event; about how heavy past events can weigh in the present. “She goes right for the jugular,” says Abumrad.
Her newest collection, Bark, is perhaps her darkest yet and took her over ten years to compose. “One wants a story to be searing and to be whole in terms of what it’s taking in of the world and of life,” she writes later in an email, recognizing the punch she can pack. She suggests that the stories can stand alone, that they should perhaps be read that way. “I think as with all story collections the reader must pace herself, since certainly the writer did.”
Our waiter returns with a small pot of coffee and instructs Moore to “wait three minutes” before pouring. Turning his attention to the newly arrived couple seated next to us he recites the specials, this time without using the word “mélange.”
Like many writers, Moore’s life is not innately interesting, and could be a stand in for most artistic types whose repertoire includes graduating with a liberal arts degree and moving to New York City. “I used to be skinny and young in New York,” she says laughing. Moore worked briefly as a paralegal in the city but the allure of a MFA program, especially one that would pay your tuition, proved magnetic enough to draw her away from city life. “It’s a lonely business, writing. To be around other writers — for them to read your work — it sounded like a dream come true. [And] it kind of was.” She wasn’t keen on leaving New York City but Cornell offered her the best deal. “’My god!’ I thought, ‘I’ll never see another bagel again!’ But of course the main street of Ithaca is all bagel shops.”
Shortly thereafter Moore left for a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she taught for over 30 years, only this January relocating to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Her more recent emails are flavored slightly with southern vernacular, trying on colloquialisms like “darlin’” for size.
What is remarkable about Moore’s prose is how true it feels, her gift in pointing out the “general absurdities of being human,” as Brooke Watkins, a librarian at the New York Public Library wrote to me. I met Watkins at “Watching Television,” part of the NYPL’s annual Robert B. Silvers lectures. Her readings are a veritable bonding experience, excited conversations of “first times” with Moore’s work edge into something akin to sexual frenzy. A young man behind the merchandise table selling Moore’s work raved with abandon about “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” — his personal favorite — while the woman behind me avidly agreed, saying the book “enters into your bloodstream.” The two hit it off so well I felt like the third-wheel, and slouched off with my then still unread copy. (It is now also my personal favorite. Followed closely by Birds.)
Her fans have been described by the New York Times as “ardent, even cultish.” And like the equally ardent and cultish readers of Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace, writers also distinctive and evocative and deadly funny or deadly sad, we the willfully misunderstood finally feel understood, and we crave her writing, almost narcissistically so. Because we each feel like she “gets us,” we also feel — covetously and alone — that we “get her.”
It is her heroines, specifically, that cull strong, sororal ties. “I’ve met lots of men who love and admire her fiction,” writes Watkins, “but I think it’s her female readership that has more of an obsessive relationship to her work.” Moore, the writer of anxious women with rogue emotions — women unsure of what scares them most, domestic failure or domestic success — has been collectively appointed mother to a thousand disoriented daughters. “Her characters aspire toward a life of the mind,” Watkins writes. “They crave some kind of hard-won wisdom but often slip into self-deprecation and cynicism instead, which ends up being really funny.” With honed bullshit detectors and an over-developed sense of humor, Moore’s characters exemplify a “way to be resilient even when they’re sinking fast. I’ve always found her writing obliquely instructive in this way.”
Moore is no minor authority on human understanding and her language is quick, the kind of language that asks us who you are and what you want to be, reminding us that higher understanding always prevails at our own expense and that happiness can be hard work. In “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?” Moore writes, “First, try to be something, anything else.” And then, later, “You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend.” And later yet:
Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.
An eyelid darkening sideways.
World as conspiracy.
Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.
Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.
The essay is Watkin’s personal favorite. “I’d never read anything like it,” she says. “In the end, of course, the story is a cautionary tale about a woman who sacrifices everything for the time to write, and eventually she’s left with no ideas or inspiration, or really any friends, and when I was eighteen I thought this was both sad and hilarious, and the truest thing I’d ever read.”
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Image via Bill Morris
On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace’s work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.
Or it’s a chilling precursor to Wallace’s suicide. On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life. He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience. These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear.
The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace’s complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine‘s best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace’s suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address.
I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning? I was curious whether Wallace’s speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend. This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about. “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see,” Wallace said in a slow, even voice. I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace’s speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd.
To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005’s Facebook page. “I’m a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few short questions,” I said in my introductory email. After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people. I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them.
What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker?
Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him. We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know. We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class. So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech.
Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker.
Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was “huh, this could be interesting.”
What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech?
Mike L.: The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.
Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing. He was a little disheveled and didn’t stand up straight when he spoke. He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us.
Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn’t in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy — it seemed like in a way he just didn’t care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn’t do anything without first thinking about it.
What was your reaction immediately after the speech? Was it clear you’d heard a better than average commencement address?
Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs. No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I’m ____’s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn’t that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story.
Megan H.: I don’t remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon. It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special.
Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was “Holy crap that was awesome.” But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I’ve ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life. The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored.
Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace’s other works?
Mike L.: There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation. We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time.
Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don’t know the context of other people’s lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I’m annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don’t know well or at all.
Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don’t plan on ever giving it up. I know it’s in book form, but that’s not the same. Mine is “original” and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.
Until the day the golfer spotted a dismembered head in the cool waters of Stony Brook, the scariest beast in Hopewell was the New Jersey Devil. As elementary school students, we were shown videos of the Devil rampaging flocks of sheep and terrorizing farmers in the Pine Barrens. This was frightening, to be sure, but the Pine Barrens were several hours by car southeast of Hopewell (pop. 2200) and the videos never showed the Devil’s face owing to budgeting constraints, as the filmmakers could not afford any special effects. Plus we had a professional hockey team named after him — the Devils — and they were an inspiration to young children, not a menace.
I remember receiving the news about the head late one night in a house in the Sourland Mountains in 1989. My friend George and I were locked in a fierce battle of Nintendo Ice Hockey, the chief variables of the game being to decide whether to choose a slow, plump player, who could shoot the puck hard and check anything in his path; a skinny player who was extremely lithe but who had a weak shot and could be easily bumped off his skates; or a medium-sized player who was a compromise between the other two body types. It was an addictive formula, and one that Nintendo continues to exploit in its games today. Anyway, we were engrossed in this battle when George’s parents mounted the stairs and solemnly told us that a severed head had been found in a creek by the Hopewell Valley Golf Club, and added that they had locked the doors and we’d been up late enough playing-your-games-and-you-should-get-some-sleep.
We did not sleep that night, of course. The thought of a head without its body was something that had never occurred to us, and we were old enough, about 10, to know that someone had killed this body before lopping off its head. We consoled ourselves, as our world views splintered and cracked, by watching The Ultimate Warrior thrash his opponents on the World Wrestling Federation until the sun pried open our dreary eyelids.
The local news followed the story of the severed head closely, and blood tests eventually revealed that it contained the AIDS virus. In 1989, AIDS was associated with two things, gays and blacks, and we believed you could contract it by cutting your head on metal and that the symptom was a long white hair on your tongue and throat. This only compounded our sense of terror: a dismembered head with a misunderstood virus.
The place where the head had been found was more bizarre, the seventh hole of an idyllic golf club. My family didn’t belong to the club, but I had been there with friends to swim in the pool, which had a deep-end colored a malevolent blue, so bottomless were its waters, and lifeguards that sneered as they twirled their whistles around their fingers. In my memories, the swimming pool is always sun-dappled and solar flared — enough to please J.J. Abrams — because we only went swimming on sunny days. Hopewell was a small town, and safe and complacent with its five churches, its family-owned deli, sport hunting shop, and pharmacy. It had once been a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan, and before that a scene of fierce resistance during the Revolutionary War. Charles Lindbergh’s baby had been kidnapped from a second story window, and then discarded in the woods just outside town, but by the late 1980s Hopewell had become a desirable backwater with its ample green spaces, acres of woods, pristine creeks, Harvest Festival, and Memorial Day parade, where kids of all colors could roam freely without fear. We would ride our Huffies and Schwinns by the golf course, right over the spot where Stony Brook, the stream in which the head had been found, dipped beneath the road.
As time went on, and the head was never claimed, rumors began to circulate, and always seemed to end in one of two possibilities: the Mafia or a serial killer had done it. Serial killers were, of course, far scarier to a 10 year old than the Mafia. Unlike the Mafia, which (television had us believe) followed a moral code, serial killers were imbued with their own unique compass. As a kid, my main concern was to find out how many other killers were out there, because that would promote my survival. My parents reassured me that we were safe — what else could you say to a child about such a thing? — and I would believe them until the sun went down and our home filled with shadows. But there were deeper questions, too: Why hadn’t anyone noticed that a head was missing? Wasn’t the family looking for the head? The thought that no family member cared enough about this person’s head to claim it back was even more terrifying. If your family can’t search for your missing head, then what good are they, in the end?
Most of my questions about the head were fed by what my parents called “an active imagination,” but in hindsight the threats were never were too far away. While vacationing at my grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin, my mom hid an ax under the bed because the bodies of slaughtered children had been turning up in the woods, before Jeffrey Dahmer had been caught; my best friend in Hopewell had once lived in Arkansas down the street from the mother of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who had apparently visited her regularly as my friend rode his bigwheel tricycle down the street.
Much later, working with asylum seekers in South Africa, I regularly met men and women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled war-torn areas where roving militias dismembered the bodies of civilian victims. The difference was that the practice was fed by a heady mix of psychotropic drugs, psychological warfare, and perverted interpretations of animist traditions. The scale of such murders was terrifying, but there were reasons in place. It was war and the militias feared the spirits of their victims. There was a certain logic.
As a Nigerian-American, I’ve also become accustomed to a few stereotypes, most of which revolve around Nigerian email scams, but also the selling of body parts. Not just internal organs, but arms, legs, feet, little fingers. (Just watch the South African film District 9, and you’ll see Nigerians who get off on dismembering people and also having sex with aliens from outerspace.) But again, there is a sort of reasoning to that illicit traffic. The bodies for these occult rituals are sliced apart for spiritual purposes, not as ends unto themselves.
Last week, after a 24-year search for more information about the head, the New Jersey State Police finally discovered the identity of the victim. She was a prostitute who had changed her name no less than 15 times, and she was identified by DNA tests that matched her with her aunt, who had filed a missing persons report with the police in 2001. Her name was Heidi Balch. She is believed to have been the first victim killed by Joel Rifkin, who confessed to murdering someone with the name of one of her aliases in 1993, and who had been sentenced to 200 years in prison after killing 17 prostitutes on a rampage. Rifkin claimed to have begun murdering prostitutes because he had contracted AIDS from one.
The HIV virus was the main character of South African author Kgebetli Moele’s 2009 novel The Book of the Dead, and the protagonist moved from victim to victim boasting of its conquests. It was not Moele’s best book — that would be Room 207, a must read — but it was chilling to read how the virus thrived on intimacy and broken relationships. Revenge was never the point of the virus in that story: it lived only for the sake of living. Rifkin, by contrast, claimed to be butchering for revenge and not for pleasure. In this, the fictional virus holds the moral upperhand, for it doesn’t pretend to be serving some larger purpose.
Like science fiction, serial killers twist our values on their head and allow us to reflect back on ourselves — What would happen if our planet had two suns instead of one? Or if we communicated through telepathy? — and, in the case of serial killers — what if you didn’t care if you killed someone? Or took pleasure in the killing? Serial killers are big business. Their psychological profiles and crafty, nefarious plotting can be patiently examined in a television series like Dexter or Bates Motel and people will watch them.
Only after I read the news about the discovery did I realize how long I had suppressed even thinking about the murder. For two decades, I now realized, I had been holding my breath as we drove along the road past the golf course; and all that time the head loomed spectral and ghoulish in the crenellations of my mind.
The New Jersey State Police managed to trace Heidi Balch’s identity by searching records of prostitution offenses at the time. If my consciousness was first shattered in 1989 when they found the head, it was this fact that shattered it again. Heidi Balch was killed because she had been pushed, by will or by circumstance, to the margins of our society to the extent that her very livelihood was a criminal act. Rifkin, Dahmer, and Gacy preyed on the weak and marginalized. It’s hard to imagine a sober conversation about legalizing prostitution in America today or empowering sex workers with rights, especially when abortion laws are becoming still more restrictive. Heidi Balch was unclaimed and nameless for 24 years. Now we know her name, but if she were alive today what would prevent us from forgetting her again?
Image Credit: Weekly World News, May 23, 1989.
He was wearing a three-piece, olive green, wool blend suit, and, casually placed atop a table, was his patterned silk scarf and hat. Gay Talese is not exactly a household name, but in the world of writers he is very well known. As I sat listening to the famed journalist in conversation with Max Linsky of Longform.org, at an October 10 event at NYU, I found myself scribbling as fast as the words came out of his mouth.
Without further scene setting, here are 10 things I learned that Mr. Talese noted would land me a job at The New York Times. (Mr. Talese, from your mouth to their ears.)
1. Pursue Your Curiosity.
In his essay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” Talese writes of his “eavesdropping youth” spent in his mother’s dress shop, which was “a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner of my mother.” This notion of curiosity is seen in the minor characters –– the ordinary people –– he championed throughout his career, as in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the entire interview is an amalgam of minor characters, from the lady who held Sinatra’s wigs to the press agent and the preening blondes on barstools. Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra for Esquire because, as he told us, everything had already been written about Sinatra. When he finally agreed to do the essay, he said, “It was almost better that Sinatra couldn’t talk to me.”
2. Be Well Dressed.
Or like Talese, never underestimate the value of a good first impression, or a three-piece suit.
3. Never Use the Phone.
I didn’t ask if phone translated to the Internet but, based on this list, and my impressions, my guess is he would tell writers not to use the Internet, unless it was to get someone’s home address. Of the inadequacy of the phone, Talese wrote: “I also believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present.” Joan Didion also spoke of disliking the phone, not because it was a short cut, but rather because she didn’t like to talk.
4. Show Up at Your Source’s Front Door.
A helpful piece of advice, but as our world has become almost transparently public, so too has it become secretive and private. House visits, phone calls, and the personal touch have been replaced by emails, texting, and tweeting. Many of the scoops Talese wrote about he got because of his in-person doggedness: showing up at Nita Naldi’s hotel, talking to the headline operator in theater district, the groundskeeper at a pet cemetery.
5. Do More Research Than You Think Is Necessary.
In the recently annotated version of his essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” –– published by Nieman Storyboard –– Gay spoke of the inventive way he sourced a particular quote for use in the profile: “That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem.”
6. Talk to People at Length or Learn the Art of Hanging Out.
Another writer who speaks of this is Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
7. Be Polite and Learn How to Ask Questions without Being Nosy.
Talese learned early how to fade into the background as he watched his mom talk to her dress shop customers, as they tried on clothes while “discussing their private lives and the happenings and misadventures of their friends and neighbors.” When asked how to develop that trust, Talese said, “Journalism is like going out on a date.”
8. Don’t Use A Tape Recorder.
This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, “Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism.
9. Don’t Take Notes in Front of People.
From out of the front pocket of his elegant suit, Talese removed a small stack of cardboard scraps, explaining they were the collar stays from his button-down shirts. When he interviewed his subjects he would slip into a bathroom to jot down notes, and at night he would type them up, along with his recollections of the day.
10. Write with Respect, and Don’t Mistreat Anyone in Print.
Joan Didion writes in the preface to her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that since she is “neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” Talese writes of his subjects from a place of extreme interest, striving for a deep understanding in the “social and historical forces that contributed to their character –– or lack of character.”
As a writer’s writer, Talese delivered these tips from a somewhat mythical place where pieces in magazines were paid for handsomely, weren’t due in one day, and were allowed to run at considerable lengths. While the above list seems both obvious and difficult, as a writer who would love to write 15,000 words about an ordinary person, I’m willing to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, at least I’m ready with my backup, also recommended by Gay Talese: “Get a job in a restaurant, and in your downtime: write.”
Bonus Link: Gay Talese’s sports writing is destined to last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia